Bad Habits to Kick: Varchar without length
October 9th, 200926
Bad Habits to Kick: Varchar without length
October 9th, 200926
This is part of more than a decade of posts involving Bad Habits and Best Practices.
See the full index.

One of my biggest pet peeves: declaring string variables or parameters without specifying how many characters they should hold. Thankfully, I see this issue seldom in the code I've inherited in my own systems, but it is quite common in blog posts and Q & A.

Because the length attribute is optional, people seem to make the assumption that defining a varchar in T-SQL is like defining a string in C#: "it will just expand to whatever size you stuff into it." The problem is, if you don't define a length, SQL Server will assign one for you, and it may not be the length you expect. In some scenarios, it will be 1 ; in others, 30.

Here is an example:

DECLARE @foo varchar = 'aaron';
SELECT foo = @foo, lenfoo = LEN(@foo);
-- foo    lenfoo
-- ----   ------
--    a        1
SELECT LEN(CAST(REPLICATE('a', 255) AS varchar));
-- 30

I have asked for the default size of varchar values with unspecified lengths to be consistent; Erland wants the "optional" part deprecated. We've each pleaded our case on () Connect:

Anyway, back to the original assumption (that any size will do); this assumption is not devastating when you are creating a table, because you will get an error message if you try to stuff more than 1 character. An example:

CREATE TABLE varchar);
INSERT VALUES('abcdefg');

The column is actually created as a varchar(1). So the result of the INSERT statement:

Msg 8152, Level 16, State 14
String or binary data would be truncated. The statement has been terminated.

In more modern versions:

Msg 2628, Level 16, State 1
String or binary data would be truncated in table '<dbname>', column 'bar'. Truncated value: 'a'.

It will only take one or two tries before you (or one of your users!) will discover the problem; surely it will be corrected quickly. However, it can very easily lead to data loss or corruption in other scenarios, and you might not notice for some time. Imagine if you forget to specify the length of a parameter to a stored procedure; since any data value > 30 characters will be truncated silently, portions of your strings will simply disappear! A more elaborate example to illustrate this:

USE [tempdb];
    bar varchar(255)
CREATE PROCEDURE dbo.foo_create
    @bar varchar
    INSERT VALUES(@bar);
DECLARE @bar varchar(255);
SET @bar = REPLICATE('x', 255);
EXEC dbo.foo_create @bar = @bar;
    [variable] = LEN(@bar),
    [stored]   = LEN(bar)
DROP PROCEDURE dbo.foo_create;


variable  stored
--------  --------
255       1

This is bad news. Unit tests will succeed because a value was inserted and no exception was raised. Unless your testing process includes checking the data in the table(s) matches the input directly after the procedure call, you might not figure this problem out for a while.

So, please don't be lazy: declare your string lengths, always!

Similar problems, though probably not as severe, can happen with DECIMAL and NUMERIC types. George Mastros blogged about it this morning.

This is part of more than a decade of posts involving Bad Habits and Best Practices.
See the full index.
By: Aaron Bertrand

I am a passionate technologist with industry experience dating back to Classic ASP and SQL Server 6.5. I am a long-time Microsoft MVP, write at Simple Talk, SQLPerformance, and MSSQLTips, and have had the honor of speaking at more conferences than I can remember. In non-tech life, I am a husband, a father of two, a huge hockey and football fan, and my pronouns are he/him.

26 Responses

  1. TxCharlie says:

    When Table Variables first came out like a decade ago, I seem to remember a limitation that quickly blew my TVF's out of the water. That's one reason why old-timers like me use Stored Procs that return recordsets instead of Table Valued Functions.
    I THINK it was a varchar size limit of 256 and it must have been SQL 2000, but I just tried to Google it, and couldn't find any mention of the limitation.
    On Aaron's pet peeve, I've been guilty of using CONVERT() to VARCHAR (no size), and it seemed to work for long strings, but maybe I was just lucky. If that's a problem, I guess I have some code out there that's truncating data!
    Oh well, I'm laid off now, so that's someone else's problem, like maybe one of you guys!!! 🙂
    I remember at the time that the limit wasn't well-documented.
    Also, sometimes you need to return four or five recordsets with transaction consistency, for the consumption of a C# function, which is just easier and cleaner with Stored Procs – Eventually you have to do a SELECT on the table variables, anyway.

  2. Niall Baird says:

    Thanks Aaron – I've just come across this issue after nearly 12 years of working with SQL Server (from 6.5->2005).   I have a table (ref_Paramters) with one column declared as varchar(max).   I (following the naming standards where I currently work) named the columns [Object], [Parameter], [ParameterValue] and when I tried to bring in the value (ParameterValue) into and SSIS variable, found that I had to convert "ParameterValue" to a varchar (even though its a varchar in the database).
    My sql was "SELECT ParameterValue FROM dbo.ref_Parameters WHERE [Object] = 'Something' AND [Parameter] = 'Path'"
    Had to change that to "SELECT CONVERT(varchar,ParameterValue) AS ParameterValue FROM dbo.ref_Parameters WHERE [Object] = 'Something' AND [Parameter] = 'Path'" to at least get it putting something into my SSIS variable.   But – the length of the value was 80 characters, and it was being truncated to 30 characters.
    Eventually, after asking around at work, someone mentioned that SQL Server truncates on Convert(varchar) if you don't put a length in – problem solved.  What really interests me, is why I have never come across this in 13 years of coding as a database developer?
    Is this 'collation' dependant?

  3. Emtucifor says:

    >> Jeo Celko said: The Standards say the default length is one.  End of discussion.
    God said: The Standards say pride is a sin. End of discussion.

  4. Bogdan Calmac says:

    Hi Aaron,
    Actually I forgot to thank you for the post, so I'm doing it now at the end. It is because of your post that I was able troubleshoot my problem.

  5. AaronBertrand says:

    Yes, it was a very unfortunate and error-prone design choice.
    We have asked for the elimination of the lazy syntax, or at least making the silent truncation consistent (see the two connect items in the original post).  And truncation errors abound in other areas (such as when you make your parameter VARCHAR(255) and try to insert > 32 characters into a VARCHAR(32) column – why can't we choose to get a similar error when passing to a parameter or variable?).
    No, I do not think this behavior is intuitive, and yes, I think everyone working with SQL Server should be aware of it.  I have seen countless people hitting the truncation problem and not understanding why.  Part of the reason I put this post together.

  6. Bogdan Calmac says:

    Yes, I'm happy to disagree.
    But I hope there is no debate that silently truncating arguments defined as "varchar" to "varchar(1)" is an unfortunate and error-prone design choice. Disallowing varchar without a size or reporting a truncation error would have been a much wiser approach.
    Do you consider this quirk as something that everybody the works with Sql Server should know? Is it intuitive?

  7. AaronBertrand says:

    Still not sure I understand the problem.  If you don't want to specify a max size, use a MAX type.  Then you can send in 1 byte or 2 GB, so who cares?
    Keep in mind that not everyone working with databases understands (or needs to understand) the differences between by reference and by value.  I'm not teaching a DBMS class, or reveling in theory; I'm trying to show some bad habits around specific use cases.
    The point of my post was that in SQL Server, because when you don't specify you can get different and potentially tragic behavior in some scenarios, it is a bad habit.  I was not intending to get into a philosophical discussion about whether or not, in general, defining the bounds of a string is a good idea.  I think it is; you don't.  We'll have to agree to disagree, and sit by and watch whether Microsoft jumps on your suggestion and changes the way the platform currently works.

  8. Bogdan Calmac says:

    Hi Aaron,
    No, I'm not that unrealistic to expect SQL Server getting changed because of a chat 🙂
    But regarding your comment about "varchar without limit is a bad habit", I don't know what to say, it's not that obvious if you are talking about it in principle. Yes, given that Sql Server transparently truncates arguments to varchar(1), it's a recipe for disaster (I have spent about the whole morning debugging this).
    But if you were my teacher in a DBMS class, you would have a hard time justifying why a function that takes a string argument must always declare the max size of the string. If it's by reference, who cares? Yes, the implementation of the function might decide to check the length and report some error but it should not be forced by the language to declare a size. Transparently truncating to a string of size 1 is probably the worst option. How can one figure out the problem before seeing your blog post? 🙂

  9. AaronBertrand says:

    You think the CHARINDEX function is not restricted in any way?  The first expression is limited to 8000 characters (my guess is that the documentation should say bytes here, not chars).  The second expression is limited to the MAX type.  The function behaves differently depending on whether the second parameter is <= 8000 or > 8000, but your IS_SUBSTRING function could check the length and behave in a similar way as well.
    As for what Oracle does that SQL Server doesn't, well, I don't know what to tell you.  I can't snap my fingers and magically change what SQL Server can do in response to some wonky Oracle feature.  For that you'll have much better luck at than telling me about it.

  10. Bogdan Calmac says:

    Hi Aaron,
    Well, then why should my IS_SUBSTRING function be subjected to different standards than the built-in CHARINDEX function? Were the developers of CHARINDEX forced to decide on a size for the arguments? Is this all because arguments are passed value?
    Also, Oracle does not force you to specify the size of varchar function arguments. If they can do without it …

  11. AaronBertrand says:

    Bogdan, your use case looked like you were passing in two strings, not a column reference.  Obviously, ALWAYS test where you're not sure about performance impact when you could do things in a number of ways.
    As for the unjustified and arbitrary restriction, I disagree wholeheartedly.  First of all, this is not *my* restriction.  Second of all, there are good reasons where the potential size of a string should be well-defined, and not just "any string of any size can go here."  If that is your need then perhaps consider testing with a MAX type instead of <= 8000.

  12. Bogdan Calmac says:

    Hi Aaron,
    While I understand why it makes sense to specify the size of DB columns (because you need a hint of how to organize data in the blocks), I think that requiring to specify the size of varchar function arguments is an unjustified and arbitrary restriction.
    Now talking about performance, if those 8000 bytes are actually allocated on every invocation of the function and I do something like:
    select * from A_BIG_TABLE where IS_SUBSTRING(TAG, ?)
    (where the function is called tens of millions of times) then I'm not sure if we can say that the allocation overhead is negligible. My use case is just as described above and I'm a bit concerned. I'll probably need to run some benchmarks to make sure that the 8000 bytes don't affect performance.

  13. AaronBertrand says:

    Bogdan, obviously choosing an appropriate maximum size is not the same problem as leaving off the size entirely.  I don't believe you will see any performance penalty for doing so, and even if there is, you will probably experience a much greater overhead for using the function than anything having to do with the size of the data types you pass in.  I am sure there are cases where that size matters, but not in the simple case you describe.

  14. Bogdan Calmac says:

    Sometimes it is not reasonable to assume the size of function arguments. Let's say I want to write a function IS_SUBSTRING(s1,s2) which is a wrapper around CHARINDEX(s1,s2).
    Now, since this is a general purpose function, I cannot make an educated guess about the size of the arguments and I would be forced to play safe and use the maximum size, varchar(8000).
    Is there any performance penalty for doing that? Are those 8000 bytes ever allocated if the actual arguments are small?
    Regarding my use case, I need the wrapper so i can write SQL which is poetable across mutiple DBMSs.

  15. Ken Lee says:

    I agree. Always specify the length for clarity. Also if you really do want a 1 character field in a table, specify CHAR(1) not VARCHAR(1) because of the overhead. A zero length field actually take 3 more bytes to store than the fixed length field. There is also some lookup performance hit since any prior variable length fields would have to be parsed to find your VARCHAR(1) field value in the table.
    PS I was unaware that it could be 30 characters long in some situations since I never investigated a practice I didn't use.

  16. AaronBertrand says:

    Ha!  So the standard says x, therefore we can ignore all implementation details, even if they don't match the standard.  <shrug>  Can't win with you Celko.

  17. Joe Celko says:

    The Standards say the default length is one.  End of discussion.

  18. AaronBertrand says:

    Madhivanan, this is certainly okay if he is converting dates and integers (unless you know of dates or integers that will be > 30 characters)?  He wasn't suggesting that what he's doing is a good idea, but compared to other ways this "feature" is abused, I think his exception is relatively safe.

  19. Madhivanan says:

    Adam, note that converting to varchar without specifying the length results to having maximum of 30 characters

  20. AaronBertrand says:

    dd, that's what VARCHAR(MAX) is for.  If I don't *need* the ability to store virtually unlimited text, why should SQL Server create a column automatically that is capable of doing so?
    Personally, I believe that there shouldn't be a default limit at all, but I think you should be forced to specify one.Just because hardware has improved does not give you an excuse to be wasteful.  I/O is still a very vital metric in SQL Server performance, and so page usage and fragmentation are very important factors to consider when designing tables.  Making every column a VARCHAR(MAX) is just inviting abuse.

  21. dd says:

    It seems kind of ridiculous to me that a varchar has an automatic internal limit in case we do not specify one.  A varchar must mean you can store any string of any length in it.  This seems like a feature stuck in the last century when we had to count every byte and word to accommodate hardware limitations.

  22. AaronBertrand says:

    Adam, in those cases I use RTRIM() instead of CONVERT().  Not that that's a better habit; just agreeing that I have a similarly bad habit.  🙂

  23. cinahcaM madA says:

    I'm guilty of using the default VARCHAR in pretty much all of my code whenever I convert integers or dates to strings, e.g.:
    I never declare variables like that, though.

  24. George Mastros says:

    There is a very similar problem with the Decimal/Numeric data type (defaulting to (18,0)).  Your blog inspired me to write this.

  25. jamiet says:

    Not sure if this is the sort of thing you're looking for but one of my pet peeves is developers using a stored proc to return a dataset (i.e. it contains only a single SELECT statment) when a TVF would do the job just as well with the added bonus that you have some metadata in sys.columns.
    Of course, this is rather subjective so I know many won't agree.